Scotland? World Cup Final? Yep.
Sport, and perhaps most predominantly football, is one of the few facets of society where men can be unabashedly emotional and not be frowned upon for being so. The TV cameras love identifying a fan showing their feelings at the end of a big game. Whether it's the ecstatic character celebrating a title win or a weeping child commiserating relegation, football and emotions are inexorably linked and I, like any other fan have experienced every single one over the years.
As you can imagine, while supporting a national side that is below such luminaries as Burkina Faso and Armenia in the current FIFA rankings following Scotland exposes you to the full gambit of human emotions. Unfortunately the overwhelming majority of them over the years haven't involved happiness.
Holland's 6 goal decimation of us in the Euro 2004 play-offs caused an anguish that only alcohol could soften. For sorrow look no further than the Faroe Islands last-minute equalizer against us in 1999. Anger? That reared its ugly head during Morocco's 3-0 victory against us during the 98 world cup, a game I'd convinced myself beforehand would see us qualify for the 2nd round of a tournament for the first time ever. I should really have known better of course, and equally I should have realised that screaming profanity as Jim Leighton conceded yet another Moroccan goal wouldn't help matters.
Through all this though only one game has truly brought me unbridled despair. It's doubtful that its anyone elses, in fact most people probably aren't even aware of the game at all but the final of the 1989 under 16 world cup between Scotland and Saudi Arabia was for me, a watershed moment.
The tournament which ended in front of almost 55,000 passionate fans on the 24th of June had begun 2 weeks previously at the same stadium on slightly more apathetic occasion. Although six and a half thousand people isn't the smallest crowd, when its spread out over the vast expanse of the national stadium it seems insignificant. The turgid no scoring draw between Ghana and the host nation did little to dispel the initial impression that the tournament would attract little interest from the host cities, especially if this was typical of the fare on show. As the tournament progressed however, so did the interest levels.
Two days later a crowd of 9,000 watched a Kevin McGoldrick inspired Scotland dismantle Cuba 3-0 meaning that only a draw was required against Bahrain in the final group match to ensure qualification for the quarter finals, which they duly secured with a 1-1 draw at Fir park. Slowly but surely the public were starting to become more and more involved, not just in Scotland's group but in the tournament as a whole which was spread out over 5 venues.
The denizens of Aberdeen had arguably the best group to preside over as Pittodrie hosted the "group of death" which all tournaments seem to produce. East Germany and Brazil would eventually just edge out America and Australia with East Germany in particular looking impressive in a 5-2 victory over the U.S.
Dens Park which was the location of a group that included Argentina and the physical and skilful Nigerian side who eventually won the section while in Edinburgh the crowds were able to get their first look at the future of Portugese football as a side including Abel Xavier, Miguel Simao, Nuno Fonseca and Luis Figo triumphed in a pool that also saw Saudi Arabia progress alongside them.
Scotland's quarter-final opponents were the well-drilled East German's who looked overwhelming favourites to reach the semi finals. Craig Brown's Scotland team were starting to gain in momentum and confidence though and despite their underdog tag they progressed thanks to a solitary last-minute strike from midfielder John Lindsay.
The victory didn't just send them through it also sent the interest levels of the Scottish fans through the roof. The semi final against Portugal was held at Tynecastle on a glorious summers evening and as the crowd filed into the stadium it was clear that the stadium was barely big enough to hold them all. The kick off was delayed by 15 minutes to ensure the near 30,000 crowd didn't miss any of the action. While it was the Portuguese who carried the reputation it was the young Scots that the crowd had turned up to watch, encourage and roar on. Despite being one of the countries most historic stadiums there's few games in its recent history that have matched that night for atmosphere and drama.
Despite the Portuguese having a team laden with skill and soon to be household names it was the young Scots who sneaked through, with Brian O'Neill becoming the hero on the evening, nodding home the winner 15 minutes into the 2nd half. Scotland were in the World Cup final.
Their opponents on the day were Saudi Arabia. A hugely physical side that had raised concerns in some quarters about the validity of some of the players involvement in an under 16 competition. As the crowd packed into Hampden to watch the match though any concerns or doubts were allayed by Scotland's opening to the match as they raced into a 2-0 lead thanks to strikes from Iain Downie and Paul Dickov. Hampden seemed alive at that moment, in complete contrast to the opening day draw with Ghana, which had suggested the tournament was to by-pass the public's consciousness.
The rest of the game didn't quite pan out as hoped for those of a tartan disposition though. An early goal from Sulaiman got the Saudi's back into it and as the Scots seemed to tire Al Terair snatched an equalizer. Just as it seemed Saudi Arabia would go on to seal it they were not only reduced to ten men but Scotland were awarded a penalty which Brian O'Neill promptly missed.
As the match went to extra time and subsequently sudden death penalties there felt an almost inevitability as O'Neill walked from the centre circle to place the ball on the spot for his penalty kick. Whereas 4 days earlier he had been the nations hero, becoming the first man to take Scotland into a world cup final he unfortunately assumed a new, unwanted record once they got there. His unsuccessful attempt left him as the first man to miss 2 penalties in a World Cup final.
As the Saudi's celebrated their victory I remember thinking how unfair it all was, how could they go 2 goals up and lose? How could O'Neill miss 2 penalties in the space of 40 minutes? I sulked for days. If the same circumstances around the game had happened today then I probably would have been preparing for the worst at half time. Years of "what if's" and "if only's" have led me to realise that as a member of the Tartan Army you should take nothing for granted., that every silver lining has a cloud. As an 11-year-old though, naive to the harshness the game can produce, I was crest fallen.
Looking back the saddest thing about that summer wasn't the penalty shootout defeat, nor the fact Scotland threw away a 2 goal lead. It's the fact that from a team of boys who so nearly ruled the world, so few of them made the grade. As I played football with my friends that summer we pretended we were Scott Marshall the young Arsenal forward or his Highbury team-mate, goalkeeper James Will who was voted player of the tournament. I was certain that it wouldn't be long before our captain at the time Kevin Bain would be leading Scotland to victories at full tournaments.
Regretfully it was never going to be that simple, and from the squad only 3 players went on to gain full international honours with Paul Dickov and Brian O'Neill being the pick of the bunch. For the majority of them, that summer would be the highlight of their careers with many of them drifting away from the game all together. They may just have come up short in lifting the trophy but for a few short weeks their performances and achievements gave the country a football team they could be proud of, and that, more than anything else, is all a Scotland fan hopes for.
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AuthorShaughan McGuigan